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Engaging the ‘Criminal Other’ in Habib Tanvir’s Plays


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Drafted on 22 March 2012 | Published as part of conference proceedings in 2012 | Published as a blog post on 29 March 2023


The ‘criminal other’ – thief, ruffian, rogue, mischievous slave, incestuous lover, rebel-poet, deformed individual, lower class person – has been an important comic agent. Aristotle in Poetics refers to the lower class and the almost-dehumanized status of the comic characters whom he seems to consider less sophisticated to be commented upon. In the plays of Aristophanes, Menander and Plautus, we find these comic agents involved in dishonest action as they use, what Jean-Pierre Vernant has called, ‘metis’ or ‘cunning intelligence’[clever tricks]. Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World also draws our attention to the use of physical deformity (traditionally the mark of a criminal) in the production of the comic, a deviation from normative physicality so nicely explained by Henri Bergson in his Essay on Laughter. Again, in Plautus, the roguish slave remarkably disrupts the normal social order in a Saturnalian mode and reveals himself as a potential threat to the authorities. The criminal other, seen in Foucauldian terms, may well be in need of exclusive correction but within the comic space, he assumes a strong form of agency. This comic space not only rehabilitates the criminal other but also allows new forms of protest against existing power structures with the aim to constitute a better society marked by lesser marginalization.

Keeping in mind the above perspectives on the ‘criminal other’ as a dramatic (if not purely comic or tragic) agent, this article engages in an analysis of a few representative cases from Habib Tanvir’s plays like Agra Bazar (1954), Charandas Chor (1975), and Hirma ki Amar Kahani (1985). Issues addressed are: placing the criminal other in the midst of generic-linguistic-cultural polyphony, marginalization of the other poetic self, politics of mirth, subversion of the master-slave dialectic, and new modes of subaltern resistance.

The Polyphonic Text

What strikes us as we read, or watch the production of any Tanvir play is its polyphonic nature. There is, on the one hand, a generic blending. The way any play is composed or produced attests to this. Take the example of Gaon ka Naon Sasural, Mor Naon Damand. This play was composed by joining together a selection of skits in the Nacha style performed in the Chhattisgarh region. Furthermore, Tanvir mixes theatrical traditions like the tamasha, and the Persi theatre style as he also borrows frequently from Western theatrical techniques as in Brecht, for example. His plays reveal a dialogue between the classical/folk theatre of Indian tradition and modern Western theatre.

Tanvir blends poetry with drama. He even renders his drama into so much of a visual experience that it appears to be filmic and is easily adaptable to the screen. He also adapts and dramatizes different texts from different genres. Shantidut Kamgar [‘The Laborer, Messenger of Peace’] is a dramatized version of a story by Premchand. He makes a unique cross-cultural intervention as he adapts A Midsummer Night’s Dream into Kamdeb Ka Sapna, Basant Ritu ka Apna. Mitti ki gadi [‘Clay Cart’, 1958] is adapted from Sudraka’s Mricchakatika. He also produced Visakhadatta’s The Signet Ring of Rakshasa (Mudra-Rakshasa). His plays resist being categorized under any fixed generic name. His plays are, what Tanvir himself says, mostly ‘collage’ of different genres (Tanvir, “Theatre is in the Villages,” 39). Apart from Chhattishgarhi folk tales, Sudraka, Visakhadatta, Shakespeare, Premchand, and Brecht, Tanvir’s plays incorporate a wide range of influence from ancient Sanskrit works by Bhasa and Bhavabhuti; to European classics by Molière and Goldoni; modern masters Garcia Lorca, Gorky, and Oscar Wilde; Tagore, Asghar Wajahat, Shankar Shesh, Safdar Hashmi, Rahul Varma, stories by Stefan Zweig and Vijaydan Detha.

Tanvir always believes that to dramatize the culture of the Indian villages, one needs not only to record what they think or believe in or feel like but also how they do so. At this point about ‘how’, he felt that he should stick as closely as possible to the languages in which his characters feel most comfortable speaking, or in which they actually communicate. Consequently, Tanvir’s plays differently blend Chattisgarhi, Urdu, Hindi, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Birji and English languages and thus become truly polyphonic. We find different forms of code-switching. However, in the midst of this overt polyphony, there is something which becomes the focal or fulcrum point in Tanvir’s texts. Inspired by Gandhi, Tanvir believed that: “Let your feet be planted firmly in your soil, but receive whatever the influence you want which can be utilized to the purpose of your own indigenous cultural growth” (Tanvir, “Cultural persuasions of Politics and their implications”). In other words, in the midst of all heterogeneity stands at the centre that which is indigenous, that which belongs to his place while all other elements get attracted to this central magnet. Sudhanva Deshpande has rightly pointed out: “Habib Tanvir… is a citizen of the world, borrowing, reading, soaking up influences indiscriminately; but through a long, hard, creative struggle, he has made Chhattisgarh the prism that refracts his creative expression. He is a Midas turned upside-down: whatever he touches loses its sheen, it becomes rough and turns to Chhattisgarhi” (Deshpande, “Habib Tanvir: Upside-Down Midas”, 3888-3891).

If Chhattisgarh is the prison that refracts the generic-linguistic-cultural multiplicity, if it is the focal magnetic point which brings together diverse elements, then the criminal other who is central to many of his plays get a unique exposure to the larger world.

Modes of Engaging the Criminal Other

How exactly does the criminal other figure in Tanvir’s plays? Following are a few examples: the marginalized poetic self in Agra Bazaar, the prostitute and the roguish lover in Gaon, the womanizer and roguish son in Bahadur Kalarin, the thief in Charandas Chor, and the rebel/insane Hirma in Hirma Ki Amar Kahani.

The Marginalized Poet in Agra Bazar

Let us first take the case of Agra Bazaar. The setting of the play i.e. the market place is of much importance. In the Greek sense, ‘agora’ is a place where intellectuals as well as the masses would meet. This was a place which opened up a public space for diverse discursive involvements including intellectual engagements as well as political discussions. Bazaar is not only a place for the coming together of heterogeneity but also involves different forms of exchange. It is also a bit like the fairground in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair which, under the guise of a festive appearance, actually reveals certain corrupt and vulnerable sides of the people in authority. As Tanvir says: “I went about producing a bazaar in which I created two poles, the kite sellers shop with the conversation about kites in colloquial, spoken languages, and the bookseller's shop where poets and critics and historians gather and speak an ornate literary language, spurn Nazir and uphold Ghalib, Mir and others; and the vendors who sing his poetry because they obtain it from him and their wares, which were not selling, immediately get sold when they begin to sing the songs of Nazir” (Tanvir, “‘It Must Flow’ A Life in Theatre”, p.11).

The expression ‘spurn Nazir and uphold Ghalib’ refers to the marginalized poetic self of Nazir. Nazir Akbarabadi (1735–1830), the contemporary of Ghalib conveyed the plight of the common people in their own everyday language. His poems, such as "Banjaranama" (chronicle of a nomad/gypsy), “Aadmi Naama” (chronicle of man) and his nazms [objective didactic or satirical poetry in Urdu] about “muflisi” (Urdu word meaning “poverty”), “kohrinamah” (chronicle of a leper) and the like reflect his temperament as “people’s poet”. His nazms actually reflected various aspects of daily life in which common people can be seen laughing, singing, teasing, and playing. But in his lifetime he was not given due recognition. He was much disliked by critics and authorities because he was very popular among the masses. Unlike Ghalib who was much upheld by the authorities, Nazir was taken to be a potential threat to the people in power. He always remained at the periphery of his culture. This peripheral state actually sheds some light on Habib Tanvir’s own projects. He too was working for the theatre of the people; he too was an artist of the masses. But time has changed. Tanvir’s recognition probably compensates for the great loss that was about to happen to Nazir.

Now the poet Nazir is literally absent throughout the play. But his poetry which pervades the theatrical space makes his personal absence a strong presence. His figure emerges in the apparently diverse pockets of the marketplace but the diverse elements are conjoined through his strong invisibility. And here lies the interaction of the marginalized other, the focal point of the play, with a world of heterogeneity.

The Thief in Charandas Chor

Charandas Chor has a thief as its central character, another criminal other. But he is a different kind of thief. “He robs the landlord not for his own sake, but for the sake of the entire village. He robs the Queen not to enhance his fortunes, but to make his presence felt. Later on, time tests him. He is given the opportunity of leading a procession, marrying a queen, eat in a golden plate and becoming a king. But, he refuses to do any of these things. Had there been any other common man, he could have pounced upon this golden opportunity without caring for future consequences” (Charandas Chor, 110, italics mine). He is neither purely bad nor purely good, probably a comic version of Aristotle’s tragic protagonist. He is a bit like Robin Hood. He robs the rich to enrich the poor. He is a thief yet a principled man. You will have to think twice before you can actually call him a criminal. Actually, he is not a common man, not an ordinary criminal. He is thus a character with depth. Notice the full confidence that marks his replies. ‘Who’re you?’ ‘A man.’ ‘I can see that. I’m asking your name and what you do’. ‘My name is Charandas and my profession thieving. Taken together that makes me Charandas the thief.’

Shubhanku Kochar finds Charandas full of contraries and the play full of paradoxes. But he does not actually delve into the reasons. It is only an intermediate character like Charandas that can become, for Tanvir, a proper comic agent. More than that, his contrary behaviour actually asserts his subjectivity. Charandas is not only the criminal other, he is also the other criminal, the different sort of criminal. Tanvir explains: He robs the Queen not to enhance his fortunes, but to make his presence felt. And that is crucial. To make his presence felt is to assert his subjectivity and reveal his aspiration to become the dominant voice in a polyphonic context. The play thus no more remains a mere means of producing laughter, but a way out for the marginalized. Charandas is perfect as a comic agent in an Aristotlean sense, for, he belongs to the lower social class and is engaged in an abominable profession. But then, within the comic space, he threatens the authorities by revealing their vulnerabilities. Actually, the Queen reveals the inability of authorities to hold on to truth, and other principles, as she asks Charandas not to stick to his vow (he took the vow that he will never marry a queen if any such situation would ever arise). She also offers to pay off all penances: “Do penance, if necessary. We can hold an atonement ceremony and gather all the ascetics and holy men and fulfil all the rituals necessary to absolve you” (Charandas Chor, 110). Because of emotional and, of course, underlying political reasons, the royal person is revealed to be weak and dishonest. But the person who hails from the criminal community proves to be the best upholder of principles. And this makes the criminal other superior. Within the comic space marked by the presence of fantasy elements (a bit like those in the plays of Aristophanes), the world turns upside down. And theatre or the play-text liberates the other.

The Insane (/Rebel) Tribal-Chief in The Living Tale of Hirma

The Living Tale of Hirma presents the criminal other in yet another form. Hirma, the rogue who made the simple people of Bastar believe that he was none other than Hirma resurrected in a new avatar (messiah), is a notorious character. The politicians knew him, his deceptive methods, and the devastating consequences that followed but could not touch him. In the text, he, at times, is made to appear either insane or a rebel. Notice how madness and criminality are defined in terms of their interrelation by the authorities:

Collector: It is […] ordered that His Highness Hirma Dev Singh Gangvanshi be placed under arrest.

Hirma: The reason for this order?

Collector: There is some doubt about your mental balance.

Hirma: Really?

Collector: For instance, take the case of the rickshaw puller [Hirma cut off the hand of the rickshaw puller]. That wasn’t the act of a normal man […] you would take the reigns of the administration into your own hands, and declare yourself self-independent.

Hirma: You consider this an act of insanity, do you?

Collector: I will say nothing further on the subject. If this is not insanity, it is certainly rebellion. (The Living Tale of Hirma, 27, italics mine)

For the authorities insanity and rebellion are interlinked and they actually cannot be sure what exactly explains Hirma’s position. What exactly is the nature of Hirma? Is he actually abominable? Is he really insane? Is he a rebel either? Do these terms at all serve to define him?

One needs to reconsider Hirma’s being called criminal or insane. Hirma is actually a good human being. The beginning of the play attests to his noble status a bit like that of Oedipus at the beginning of Oedipus Rex. His subjects have come to him because famine and death have made them feel helpless. He is ready to do everything to rescue them from danger. He unhesitatingly leaves his palace to attend Angadeva puja which lasts for eleven days and eleven nights to propitiate the god. He also distributes money among the poor and thus attests to his greatness. One who is so much devoted to his people cannot be called insane or deceptive without a second thought.

There is of course another side of his character. He takes the bait to use his manpower in earning a position in the parliament through the election. But he does it only to respond to the cause of his community. Rather than making him politically more powerful, his victory at the election actually enhances his bond with his people. The political privilege that this kind of election may bring is actually of no use to him. He desires to preserve the tribal lifestyle which they have inherited from their ancestors. He is fighting the cause of his people. His law is the law of the earth, the chthonic law. The law of the country is man-made and may change from time to time. But his law is the law of his ancestors which remains constant. His law is the law of the gods. He wishes to attend the religious festivals which he presides over. He responds to the demands of the gods. Government officials may misinterpret his actions and may find in him a conspirator. But he would stick to his principles. He has cut off the hand of a rickshaw puller. This points less to his criminality than to his being a principled man. This rickshaw puller exploited his emotions. He tried to fool Hirma by again and again coming for more and more money that Hirma was distributing among his people. You can remain my people, be associated with me, Hirma seems to say, provided you remain honest and dedicated. Again his people have thrown arrows at the policemen and have actually killed a chaprashi not because they were revolting against the government but because they were motivated by the need for the preservation of their community and peaceful lifestyle.

One is reminded of Dipesh Chakraborty’s refuting of the accepted (European) take on the Santal rebellion. Sidho and Kanho and their community rebelled not because they were inspired by patriotic or anti-British sentiment, but because their Thakur came in their dreams and asked them to attack the British. Historians who are rationally minded and think in terms of power struggle would never be able to understand the minds of the subaltern and would always misinterpret their actions. In a similar fashion, the authorities in The Living Tale of Hirma, misinterpret Hirma as criminal other and wrongly call him insane or rebel. Actually, their uncertainty (either you are a rebel or insane) regarding his actual identity indicates the wrong direction they have taken to understand him.

Ostracization Resisted

The people’s poet in the Agra Bazaar, the thief in Charandas Chor, and the insane tribal chief in Hirma – all risk being ostracized by a group of authorities who rule by means of a set of arbitrary laws. But how far is this ostracization justified? Nazir is disliked by the authorities. But he is loved by the masses. In this sense what should we call him? Is he a minor poet (which he has been in his time) or a great poet? Charandas is a thief by profession but a human being by nature insofar as he is highly principled and as he is also close to the poor. But then, he is a threat to the rich men and also to the political authorities. So, are we to call him a criminal? Hirma appears to be a living threat to the authorities. But is that a sufficient reason for murdering him brutally? Do the authorities empathize with Hirma’s situation? The criminal other in Habib Tanvir’s plays resists all forms of ostracization. In the midst of all heterogeneity and polyphony, in the midst of the multi-verse of Tanvir’s plays, he seems to pop up with a strong case. ‘Who are you to determine the identity of the Self and the Other?’ he seems to ask, ‘By which standard do you judge these terms? Who told you that your standards of judgment are appropriate?’

Works Cited

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. ‘Minority History, Subaltern Pasts.’

Deshpande, Sudhanva. “Habib Tanvir: Upside-Down Midas.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 38, No. 37, 2003, pp. 3888-3891.

Detienne, Marcel and Vernant, Jean-Pierre. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society. Translated by Janet Lloyd. University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Kochar, Shubhanku. “Charandas Chor: A Study in Paradox.” The Criterion: An International Journal in English.

Tanvir, Habib. Charandas Chor. Translated by Anjum Katyal. Seagull, 1996.

---. “Cultural Persuasions of Politics and their Implications.” Lecture delivered on 16 Oct. 2000.

---. “‘It Must Flow’ A Life in Theatre.”

---. The Living Tale of Hirma. Translated by Anjum Katyal and Prabha Katyal. Seagull, 2005.

---. “Theatre is in the Villages.” Social Scientist, Vol. 2, No. 10, 1974, pp. 32-41.

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